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De Standaard builds its paywall with accessible doors

By Emmanuel Naert


Brussels, Belgium


At the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s winning the U.S. presidency, it’s good to reflect on some of his illustrious words during the election campaign.

During this debate, President Trump was on a roll when he mentioned his intention to build a wall to stop illegal migration. He also declared he didn’t mind putting a nice door in it to let people in legally. That statement was probably quite disturbing for the people of Mexico (as well as for Jeb Bush), but it’s the same metaphor we at De Standaard thought about in regard to our commercial digital strategy.

De Standaard is a freemium Web site, and for two years we’ve been promoting subscriptions with a one-month free trial period. Whenever a visitor clicked on a so-called “plus article” he or she would be invited to read De Standaard for one month for free: free plus articles and the free digital newspaper as well. Nice!

But we found that even with this trial, we got poor conversion figures. More importantly, after the free trial, all plus articles were forbidden territory for potential readers who already consumed their trial sub. Every interesting long read or interview that could have led to conversion was consequently unavailable for conversion practice for a growing group of visitors. They were becoming illegal.

So, like Mr. Trump, we also looked for a nice little door to let people in and give them — limited — permission to read the best content available on the Web site. In other words, we use a paywall, but made it “porous.”

At De Standaard, we like fancy words, but I had to look this one up. It means there are holes or spaces in the wall. Porous reading means that, within certain measured limits, non-subscribers get access to “plus content” to give them a chance to savor our journalistic work, photography, videos, and infographics on the site.

We decided to meter this access as well; a visitor gets to read up to five plus articles per month. We observed news media using a meter like The Economist or The New York Times and were afraid that, considering our current market share, metering the entirety of the Web site would be wrong.

We also looked at sites like The Telegraph and Knack, both news sites that put nice little doors before their plus content. The Telegraph gives you one premium article per week, and Knack offers three a month. De Standaard put the meter on five articles per month.

So, whenever visitors come by, whether they are Belgian or Mexican, we welcome them to periodically enjoy some great news stories on our Web site. On the pop-up it literally says “Here’s a present. You get this plus article for free. Enjoy!” When the reader reaches the sixth article, the pop-up says “It seems like we’re made for each other; if you wish to read on subscribe to De Standaard for only 1 Euro the first month.”

I attentively read the Helsingin Sanomat presentation on the INMA site. It said the company’s meter failed and instead it introduced a freemium site containing “diamonds” (paid articles). So, the company more or less went the opposite way of De Standaard.

But how high is the entry barrier for non-subscribers to discover these shiny diamonds? My Finnish is totally worthless, but it may be that, like the Mexicans and Belgians, the Finns would also appreciate a nice door to enter the Garden of Eden of journalism.

We are three months into porous reading. I don’t have any figures to share at this time; a first evaluation is pending. But it looks like each day, non-subscriber visitors easily find the little door and at least get to taste every once and a while of the work in the newsroom.

About Emmanuel Naert

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